After securing a European berth for the first time in 48 years at the end of last season, it is hard to believe that less than a year ago Coach Gian Piero Gasperini was on the verge of losing his job. But he was. On October 2 his side faced Napoli, and Antonio Percassi – owner of the Bergamo-based outfit – has since admitted that he was seriously considering the future of the newly-appointed tactician.
At that point, La Dea had lost matches to Palermo and Cagliari, amassing just six points in as many rounds. The veteran boss made a brave decision ahead of the fixture with the Partenopei, one that would pay off in spectacular fashion. Mattia Caldara, Roberto Gagliardini and Andrea Petagna made the team sheet that day, shocking everyone as the Coach turned to his youth team players to save the day.
Such bravery from Gasperini saved his job, as the young striker Petagna scored the only goal of the game to give Atalanta a victory that no-one could have predicted. What happened next is well documented, as the band of youngsters went from strength to strength. Gagliardini impressed so much that he would earn a move to Inter in January, but La Dea were undeterred, continuing to register impressive results.
Four months later the Bergamaschi were due to travel to Naples and – despite their fine form and previous result against the Partenopei – they were still not given a chance against Maurizio Sarri’s side. This time a brace from Caldara was enough to secure the points without reply, as the young side romped to victory.
Atalanta ended up in fourth place by the end of the season, but their double over Napoli was an achievement in itself. Many teams came unstuck against Sarri’s free-flowing style, but La Dea became the only team to have completed a double over them, and Napoli failed to score in both league games against no other side in Serie A last season.
This weekend sees the Bergamo outfit travel to Naples once again, leaving many questioning whether they can repeat last season’s exploits. It will not be easy to match their incredible feat though, as much has changed during the summer.
Gone are the likes of Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti, whilst Leonardo Spinazzola is left out of the squad after being unsettled by talk of an early move back to parent club Juventus. After being drawn against Everton and Lyon in the Europa League group stages, the squad may have one eye on that competition, one that has been increasingly tough on sides with fewer resources.
Napoli, meanwhile, are playing with their tails up. An impressive 4-0 aggregate victory over Nice in the Champions League preliminary rounds saw them progress to the group stages with ease, and pre-season with a fully intact squad has allowed Sarri to further improve on their already well-honed tactics.
On paper it may look as though the Neapolitans might struggle once again, as forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens have both failed to score in eight league outings against Atalanta, but the reality should be very different.
On current form, it is difficult to see a repeat of last year, but Atalanta have surprised us before. There’s nothing to say they won’t do it again.